15 September, 2012

“Development” and autocratic rule

            I became the latest “unwilling beneficiary” of development as Nepal’s road-building program, which has been ongoing since September 2011, recently came and bulldozed my wall. Along with the wall, we also lost one dozen old growth trees that my grandfather had planted about a century ago.

The wall had to go in order to widen the lane from its existing width, the road-builders insisted-even though the lane allowed for water tankers, ambulances etc to pass by at its current width. No matter that the area was a historic area where jatras/festivals had been held for centuries, and which would have benefited from a more rational cultural heritage preservation policy.

The lane widening was for these few feet-the new wall is on the left. For this, the neighbourhood lost around 2 dozen old growth trees.
The lane widening was for these few feet-the new wall is on the left. For this, the historic neighbourhood lost around 2 dozen old growth trees.

Axing down Kathmandu's ecological heritage.
Axing down Kathmandu's ecological heritage.
Old growth jackaranda that took over 8 decades to grow and which sequestered tons of groundwater.
Old growth jackaranda that took over 8 decades to grow and which sequestered tons of groundwater.

Century old bottlebrush tree, cut down for lane widening.
Century old bottlebrush tree, cut down for lane widening.
This road-building program can be traced back to surveys done by institutions like DFID, which brought out reports which showed that the highest priority of Nepalis were roads. But which kinds of roads? And where? The nuances were bulldozed aside as development, funded by institutions like the World Bank, marched heedlessly on to its own programmatic goals. It is assumed that asphalt (black top) shall be the form of the road, and that the road should in all neighbourhoods be built to accommodate the gas-fed automobile.

In this case, the road-widening is seen to be a rational and irreversible development goal which all citizens in all areas must embrace with the same fervor. A more nuanced program, which allowed for democratic public consultation, would have brought these issues of cultural heritage to the fore, and perhaps made the road-builders realize the economic harm they could be causing this area by eroding the historic nature of the Handigaon neighbourhood. Democratic consultation would also have brought to the fore other options—eg; instead of asphalt, paving the area with stones would revive the historical architecture, and would bring more pedestrian traffic and shoppers to the area.

In addition, the asphalt roads the government of Nepal is building has one major flaw-it rarely lasts beyond a few monsoons. Water damage quickly takes its toll before roads have to be re-topped. A major culprit of this is the lack of drains on the side of roads, which the haphazard road-building process hasn’t addressed with significant engineering.
Indifferent workers doing a mediocre job of patching up the road.
Indifferent workers doing a mediocre job of patching up the road.

Lucrative road contracts, handed out to political allies in exchange for future votes, is  handled by contractors with no interest in the local community. Youths, who could have been dynamically engaged in the democratic process through the road-building, have been sidelined. Frustrated youth leaders have made death threats against contractors unless they give them a cut of the profits. Road-building, in other words, has been used to bolster an autocratic regime in Nepal that has less interest in the democratic process than in using development funds to bolster their own voting bloc.

The roadbuilding contractor.
The roadbuilding crew patching up Gahana Khojnay Pond neighbourhood-a neighbourhood of cultural and historic importance whose heritage should have been preserved through better management.
Lets take another example of development which caused great economic harm. In the 1970s, an Australian project came to Nepal and planted the pine tree as part of a project on reforestation. This pine tree then became the symbol of development, replanted by successive Nepali governments in forestry projects. Pine, of course, has a major flaw—it sheds a lot of flammable resin and needles. It also dries out the ground. Pine, unsuitable to Nepal’s multiple geographic locations, was planted almost everywhere, with the results that now it creates massive forest fires that have wiped out hectares of protected forests. Every year we witness thousands of hectares of forest fires due to one unquestioned decision a forestry project made 4 decades ago.

Lets take the third example of development run amok. Despite scientific evidence pointing to the harm big dams cause to rivers, Nepal’s government (that was elected only to write a new Constitution, and not to decide on giant hydropower contracts) has passed a number of decisions to handover multi-million dollar contracts to Chinese companies to build hydropower plants. The damming of these rivers have irreversible consequences, as has been pointed out by numerous researchers in the case of China and India, where big dams have caused great damage to the flow of rivers like the Yamuna. Big dams are also thought to cause earthquakes, as in the recent case of Lushan County in China. Despite scientific evidence that provide proof that great economic harm happens with wrongful development, our planners and government officials have quietly passed multiple contractual agreements to build giant hydropower projects without taking alternatives into account.

Solar power is a clean energy alternative that now powers one million Australian homes. Small hydropower, which many Nepali communities have already set up on their own expense, also contribute to electricity generation without destroying the ecological balance of the rivers. Nepal could do a great deal to tap the rainwater that falls on cities (through rain drains) and recharge the groundwater of Kathmandu, which is running dry due to the heedless policies of political leaders who envision a city free of trees, served by gas-fed water tankers. This ideal of development, where water is distributed through tankers (or through a pie-in-the-sky scheme like Melamchi) rather than through the careful management of groundwater, is an unsustainable one—as unsustainable as the idea that we will always have lavish access to petroleum to run our vehicles.

This jackaranda replenished the groundwater into an increasingly arid Kathmandu city.
This jackaranda replenished the groundwater into an increasingly arid Kathmandu city.

The short-term goals of top-down “development”, implemented at the behest of autocratic regimes without the active consultation of local communities, severely harm the long term economic growth of Third World countries. In Kathmandu, road-building that prioritizes the needs of traffic at the expense of cultural and ecological heritage is already causing long-term economic harm as tourism, the major foreign currency earner, declines to a trickle. The irony of this is that with thoughtful and democratic consultation and planning, road-building could have gone hand in hand with building a more sustainable, tourist and resident friendly city. When will the donors change their guidelines so that democratic public consultation, heritage preservation and ecological preservation become an essential part of all infrastructure funding?

Nepal's Cultural Revolution

Sushma Joshi

In the past few months, the Maoist government decided to start a road-widening program in Kathmandu. Interestingly, they have taken their road-widening program precisely through all the most historic neighborhoods of Kathmandu. From Baluwatar, where the Prime Minister’s office is located, they intend to blast through the old neighborhoods of Bhatbhateni, which is already heavily congested with traffic. Wider roads, it appears, is not conducive to better traffic flow or better neighborhoods. From Bhatbhateni, the road would curve down to Handigaon.

 Handigaon is the oldest known settlement of the Kathmandu Valley, and archeologists have discovered temples and treasures dating back to ancient times. It should be closed off to traffic, like the Patan Durbar Square, and the government should be giving funds to restore its old temples and buildings. Instead, they are appropriating land from the people in the neighborhood so they can have a smooth SUV ride. Despite their grand rhetoric of how they love ethnic cultures, the Maoists seem indifferent to the jyapu community whose historic neighborhoods they are ploughing over. There was no consultation with the communities about whether this road was needed or wanted, of course. This road then continues through Chabel Ganeshthan temple, which is one of the most well-preserved and ancient neighborhood of Kathmandu still intact, and where a busy bazzar still continues, partially shielded from traffic. The demonitionists are already out there, drilling it up.

It seems we have not learnt any lessons from the Cultural Revolution in China where the Maoists destroyed all ancient and precious arts and culture that existed.

There are other ways to solve Kathmandu’s traffic problems, of course. Banning four-wheeled drives in the Valley would be a start. Requiring all government, diplomatic and UN offices to get hybrid or electric vehicles with small widths that fit the streets of Kathmandu would be second. Traffic rules and regulations would be third. But most primary is repairing existing roads, and putting rain drains on either side.

The number of private vehicles have risen in geometrical progression whereas public transport or the government support for it has come to a complete halt since the Janaandolan. Instead, the roads have become clogged instead with even large four-wheeled drives—Pajeros, Scorpios, Ravas—that members of Parliament take as a political entitlement. Just getting the 600 plus one CA members of Nepal to downsize their vehicle possessions and make it mandatory for government employees to ride public transport--sell all those government four-wheeled drives and invest it in public transport and buses—would cut down tremendously on the traffic jams and the chaos of big vehicle trying to run down small pedestrian in tiny walking lane.

Investing in public transport is another must to deal with the ever-increasing volume of traffic. Oddly, none of these overzealous road-builders have yet put a bag of cement on the worn-down driveways of Ratna Park, which sees hundreds of public buses each day.
Maoists want to indicate the change of regime through their control of architecture. But just like their control of the state and the political apparatus, their mega-project of road-building seems to have gone slightly awry. Kathmandu desperately needs a level headed architect to finish the works started in road-building. Maybe this is why Kesav Sthapit has recently been renamed head of the Kathmandu Valley Town Development Authority to turn around Kathmandu City. Lets hope he and his team are grounded less in grand mega-projects of tallest, largest, biggest and more in small scale solutions appropriate for city whose dimensions and history make “small is beautiful” urban planning the best solution.

945 words